When Zoya Phan was a small child, her older brother would wake her in the middle of the night and strap her to his back. Her brother – still a child himself – needed the extra weight to operate the wooden beam the family used to pound rice in a huge mortar to remove the husks. He would sing to her as he pounded, until she fell back asleep.
It’s the inclusion of memories like that one that make Phan’s memoir, Little Daughter, more than a consciousness-raising exercise about the political situation in her native Burma. The depictions of starvation and violence, as horrible as they are, aren’t the most powerful parts of the book.
It’s the portrayal of her family’s life in the jungle that grabs the reader’s heart.
These aren’t victims. They’re people.
Phan is a member of the Karen ethnic minority, which has been oppressed by the Burmese military regime for decades. She grew up in villages in the jungle near the Thai border.
At 14, she fled the approaching army and spent much of her adolescence in the massive Karen refugee camps in Thailand.
Over the last few years, Canada has been actively resettling hundreds of Karen refugees from those camps. Zoya Phan’s younger brother, Slone Phan, is now living in Winnipeg.
Ottawa, too, has suddenly found itself with a Karen community made up of families who have been resettled from the camps.
But, like many refugees who’ve lived in fear their whole lives, the Karen can be reluctant to talk much about the horrors they left behind. Many are still learning English. So it’s possible for Canadians to live next door to Karen refugees without knowing much about where they come from.
Little Daughter speaks for the Karen refugees who are unable or unwilling to tell their stories.
“The Karen are now spread all over the world, even in Finland, Norway – the very north of the world – down to New Zealand,” says Zoya Phan on the phone from England, where she has lived for four years. Her sister is there with her.
Only one of the siblings – her older brother, Say Say, who used to put her on his back to pound rice – is still in the Thai/Burmese border zone, helping the refugees in the camps.
Like other Karen refugees, Phan has mixed feelings about her decision to leave the camps. The global resettlement program has been a near-miracle for thousands of Karen. And, as Phan acknowledges, it gives them freedom to speak openly to the world about the crisis in Burma.
But it has also drained the camps of many of their most skilled and educated refugees.
The camps are like prisons, Phan says. The Karen are not allowed to leave, to work or to farm. There is very little education. Food is rationed and only goes to the “official” refugees, who share it around.
Besides, the new Karen diaspora is, in some ways, an admission of defeat. The Karen’s fight for freedom is one of the world’s longest civil wars.
“The regime in Burma has a policy of ethnic cleansing,” says Phan. “To see the Karen spread all over the world would be a happy thing for the regime.”
What she wants, more than anything, she says, is to go home.
That might seem odd to a reader in the wealthy world. Phan grew up without any of the comforts of the 20th century. When she was two years old and close to death with a fever, her mother had to carry her through the jungle to find a nurse who could help.
Yet Little Daughter doesn’t make us pity these people. It helps us get to know them, so that when the violence and privation do come, we feel as if it is happening to friends.
We come quickly to admire Phan’s mother, a former resistance soldier who once led a troop of female fighters through the jungle; who once leapt on to a python’s back while her soldiers beat it to death; who kept adopting children of even poorer parents, even when she was gravely ill in the camps.
And we feel affection for her father, a writer, activist and high-ranking official in the Karen resistance movement who, every time they fled to a new place and had to build a new home in the jungle, would manage to create a little flower garden and decorative fish pond.
He was assassinated in Thailand last year by agents of the Burmese regime.
Phan and her British co-author, Damien Lewis (his name appeared on last year’s Tears of the Desert, with that of Halima Bashir, of Sudan) take pains to translate every Karen name. Thus, we learn that Tee Se Paw means Sweet Water Flower and Mu Yu Htoo means River of Gold.
There’s even poetry in the English names some Karen give their children: Nightingale and Winston Churchill were among Phan’s schoolmates.
She describes their childhood games. The children made marbles out of clay and swung on vines over the river.
Phan is only 28 years old. Her childhood lasts for most of the book, as the threat of war gets ever closer.
The Burmese regime instituted a policy called Four Cuts, cutting off supplies, recruits, food and information from the regions controlled by the Karen resistance.
After the democratic uprising and subsequent crackdown in Rangoon in 1988, many non-Karen Burmese freedom fighters fled to the border region and joined forces with the Karen.
That only attracted more violence from the regime.
Awakened to activism
So it was that in 1995, Phan and her mother and siblings piled into a boat with their neighbours, while their father urged them on from shore and the explosions came nearer. That was the beginning of a long trek back and forth across the Thai border.
The family would be reunited at times and then scatter again.
Phan, always a good student, eventually won a scholarship from an international organization and went to Bangkok to do her bachelor’s degree – in business, which was the only choice she was given.
She had to pretend to be Thai so the authorities wouldn’t deport her – not an easy task, when she barely spoke a word of Thai. And she had to learn to write her essays on a computer and e-mail them to her professors – this at a time when the self-described “girl from the jungle” was still getting used to the sight of window glass.
But she did well, and was eventually offered a job at a Thai telecommunications firm. Instead, she went back to the border area to help her family, and even back into Burma on a fact-finding mission, which she says awakened her to her true calling as an activist.
After her mother died, Phan took another scholarship at a university in England. At a free- Burma rally in 2005, she was invited to speak about her story.
Since then, she’s been a fixture at political conventions and on current-affairs shows. She now works for Burma Campaign UK.
Phan says she’d like Little Daughter to be “a window” to help people see what’s going on in Burma.
It is that, but it’s also a page-turner and a beautiful coming-of-age story.